As 2016 approached, one of my school friends posted in our WhatsApp group to ask what everyone’s goals were for the new year. “Essentially more of the same,” I wrote, “no major life changes desired nor anticipated.” “I’d like to climb Kilimanjaro,” she replied. At the time it seemed an amusing illustration of differences of character between old friends. But this year, that same friend looks ahead to planning a wedding and the arrival of her first child. As for me, my answer from six years ago remains accurate – though I am no longer so confident in or so happy about it.
I thought about this conversation recently as I walked home from the cinema having watched Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World. An irreverent quasi-romcom, it follows Julie, an Oslo resident – who, before the prologue has ended, has already changed her hairstyle, her career path and her lover several times over – as she enters her thirties.
The age difference between Julie and her boyfriend, Aksel, who is 15 years her senior, begins to prickle: she struggles to ingratiate herself with his Gen-X friends and their patronising takes on being A Young Person Today, and is unsure about having children. “You seem to be waiting for something,” says Aksel. “I don’t know what.” Her next choice of partner, Eivind (their meeting is the purest portrayal of chemistry I’ve ever seen on screen), is more on her wavelength: he works in a coffee shop while she works in a bookshop, and his only certainty in life is that he does not want children. But this turns out not to be what Julie needs either.
Ryan Gilbey described the film in these pages as “an exuberant portrait of a young woman flailing and floundering as she approaches 30”; ouch, I thought, is that what I’m doing, flailing and floundering? And so I entered the cinema braced, expecting to find the film devastatingly exposing of my frivolities and silliness. In fact, I found Julie to be incredibly… normal. She is beautiful, self-possessed and wry. She matures and regresses in faltering cycles. She is full of inchoate yearning. She knows what she’s supposed to want, but she doesn’t know what she wants. Hers is the mood of an uncertain generation. She is, in short, in the midst of what Nell Frizzell has termed “the Panic Years”, that “complex focal point of every pressure, contradiction and fear faced by Western women today” that begin in your late twenties, when social norms, comparisons, questions of fertility and time itself collide.
Julie’s one unrelatable part is that she doesn’t seem to have any female friends; there is just one mention of a girl who has grown “frosty” with Julie, because “we were single together”. Friendship and the inevitable envy it raises have been key to my Panic Years. I am fortunate to have a group of brilliant female friends – nine of us in total – whom I met and fell in love with at school. We are very different people, of course, but for a long time our circumstances were neatly comparable – similar education level, similar academic capacity, similar career progression, similar socio-economic backgrounds – and we moved through life’s stages in sync. Now, they are buying houses, getting married, having babies, while I continue with “more of the same”. I know it is childish and naive, but I find it hard not to feel betrayed, left behind.
I am not sure if I want to have children – I often wonder if that “instinctual” hunger others experience will ever kick in for me, or if it will always remain an intellectual decision – and even if I wanted to, I am presently missing a key, shall we say, ingredient. I am fairly sure that I want to get married, but would someone please have a word with men on dating apps and tell them that posting pictures of themselves with a dog and a baby, alongside, “The baby isn’t mine, but the dog is” isn’t original or funny?
Girls are raised to expect puberty and menopause, but no one warned me about the bit in the middle: the life-changing decisions that have to be made before you know what life you want, and the way so much of it feels hopelessly out of control even if you did. I am waiting for something. I don’t know what.
This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain